On 5 September 2008, Senegal met Algeria at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in a World Cup qualifier. In the 81st minute, Cheikh Gueye scored an own goal which leveled the game for Algeria. 7 minutes later, Rafik Saiki stuck a dagger into Senegal by scoring the winner. Algeria won the match.
The own goal proved fateful as Senegal drew Gambia a month later and were eliminated from the World Cup running. If they had drawn Algeria they would have been at the top of the table with 10 points and would have gone to the next round.
Rewind six years ago. The 2002 World Cup was set ablaze as Senegal in its first appearance in the World Cup shocked the reigning World Champions France, 1-0. It then captivated the world with some flowing soccer as it drew Denmark, then withstood a furious onslaught by the Uruguayans to draw again and qualify for the knockout phase. The match against Sweden went into overtime and Henry Camara delivered the golden goal that sent Senegal to the quarterfinals. The first African country after Cameroun in the 1982 World Cup to do so. The momentum built by their great run in the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal finishing runners up to Cameroun seemingly had carried over to the World Cup.
By that time El Hadji Diouf, Henri Camara, Pape Bouba Diop, and Pape Thiaw had captivated the world with their dynamic and exhilarating display. Diouf was named to the All Star team. They had a look of invincibility. Encomiums from all around the world flowed in and Dakar's streets teamed with revelers. When Metsu's team went up against Turkey, all of Africa's prayers were with the Lions of Teranga. Surely, they would get through. But it was not to be. The game was played without the customary verve by the Senegalese and they lost on a golden goal scored by Ilhan Mansiz.
It was anti climactic. Bruno Metsu was criticized by the press and fans for not substituting his tired players even as he stoutly defended his decisions. Some ex-players like Babacar Louis Camara were exceedingly harsh on him "It is horrible to say it, but we were beaten because of bad coaching."
It appears that they have not recovered from that loss. Senegal failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Unlike their West African neighbours who have invested robustly in quality infrastructure for their soccer players and proved to be incubators of world class talent, Senegal has been stuck in an apathetic rut. Despite boasting a stable government which sees very little ethnic strife and enjoying more affluence than its neighbors, the neglect in improving conditions is quite remarkable.
Senegal's youth leagues are very poorly organized and there are no dedicated soccer academies like ASEC Mimosas. The country's largest facility, the Leopold Senghor is little more than a dust bowl with no floodlights and broken down dressing rooms. The football federation was little more than a cash cow for its officials and famous for having a testy relationship with the media charged with exposing its corruption. One of its former presidents is under investigation for embezzlement of 66m francs. The Orwellian sounding Committee for the Normalization of Soccer (CNF), the newer version, set up earlier this year after Senegal's dismal 2008 ACN campaign appears to be little interested in anything but more politics.
The early exit of the Senegalese team resulted in rioting fans attacking the CNF headquarters and torching vehicles. The CNF terminated the services of the Lamine Ndiaye, the coach and promptly launched an investigation into the team's failure. The 2002 World Cup success has resulted in an obsession with recycling players like El Hadji Diouf and Henry Camara even as they approach their fading years.
Senegal's shambolic 2008 Africa Cup venture seems to have left a bitter taste as a number of quality players have rejected national squad duty. The list includes Mamadou Niang, L'OM's sharpshooter and Souleymane Diawara, Bordeaux's right back refusing the call up. Demba Ba, one of the brighter sparks partnering Vedad Ibisevic in 1899 Hoffenheim's blistering run has been virtually overlooked.
Aliou Cisse, the captain of the 2002 World Cup team could not have been more prophetic.
"If we do not sort out the problems of Senegalese football and prepare a generation of talented footballers to follow us, I am very scared for the future," Cisse told BBC Sport Online.